The World’s Best Teacher: Could Tabichi’s Triumph be a Wellspring of Life-changing Education Reforms in Africa?

Published on 9th April 2019

Prologue: Tribute to Teachers

Of all the careers cultivated by humankind, teaching is acknowledged to be, and undoubtedly is, the noblest, the most interesting, and with the most enduring impact on generations. For, by the instruction and knowledge transferred through teaching, not only is the bulk of life understood, but our very faculties are enlarged with the grandeur of the concepts conveyed, our culture transformed beyond low contracted prejudices (Adapted from James Ferguson’s introduction on Astronomy, 1757, additions and modifications mine).

Teacher Tabichi it was! The first African teacher to win the coveted Global Teacher Prize of a million US dollars, in March 2019. Peter Tabichi’s fellow finalists represented countries whose development indicators and established reputation in the education sector effortlessly dwarf his homeland, pedigree, and the formal education he earned through a life of deprivation and struggle in rural Kenya. He deliberately deserted the privileges of a private school to tend to the needs of underprivileged students in a rustic public secondary school. This was an unqualified labour of love.

To casual onlookers, Tabichi might easily pass for instant success and a cultural icon portraying teaching in the public schools of Kenya as a smooth enterprise. Nothing could be further from the truth! His win was not because the race was not tight, but exactly the opposite in a contest that sieved through thousands of applicants to converge on ten finalists. His private travail finally led to public triumph in a way only his fellow teachers can relate with. Teachers quietly go about their daily demanding duties of nurturing generations through golden instruction. Years of selfless dedication and passion won. As is usually the case for silent heroes, public recognition abroad sent news home before his compatriots could identify him as a hero who has always lived among them; consequently, they fondly identified with him to share in the glory he had always been cooking in private travail.

Reinventing the African Teacher

Curious questions arise spontaneously from the epic display of contrasts and Tabichi’s eventual triumph over the titanic global competition. The questions meet at the point of demanding one sound answer from Kenyan, and of course African leaders:

Where could Tabichi’s homeland of Kenya (and Africa at large) be in the development trajectory by now, if only the education sector was better led and managed and the private travail of dedicated teachers received fair compensation?

African leaders must be careful to note that an over-managed but under-led education system cannot yield the transformative results needed to counter the 21st-century challenges. School is where young people spend most of their time. So central are teachers to transforming society, being the key agents of learning and role models at school, that their dedication has been reinforced in the writings of authors such as Dr. Mary Kinyajui who recently asserted in The African Executive, “We need a reinvention of the teacher to spur dedication.” She was referring to the urgency to restore the image and dignity of (Kenyan) teachers through dialogue and full support by the governing system. Countries like Finland have demonstrated that with proper leadership and management, teaching can be the most sought-after profession in society. To match the rapid technologically driven changes in the world, adequate resources must be allocated for the re-training, re-skilling, and upskilling of teachers as the key agents in charge of knowledge transfer.

Reassurance in the Sunrise

Being a teacher of Physics, Tabichi can only know too well that sunrise is first an illusion. Refraction enables us to see the sun before it goes above the horizon. Similarly, he saw the sunrise in the deprived learners long before others did and pursued the goal of transforming their future with dedication. His motivation was to transform society in his own small way, using whatever he found readily available in the immediate environment. He believed in the true value of education, which respects no boundaries.

Simply stated, his labour was not aimed at becoming a world hero. When victory caught up with him, crowning him the celebrated winner of the global award, it was a by-product of his diligent and sacrificial record of accomplishment. If he took seven steps from where he sat to reach the spot where he was crowned the winner of the 2019 Global Teacher Prize, then each of the seven wise sayings on education below must have found meaning in every successive step.

  1. The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet – Aristotle.
  2. Education is the passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to those who prepare for it today – Malcolm X.
  3. Education is an ornament in prosperity and a refuge in adversity – Aristotle.
  4. Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself – John Dewey.
  5. Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world – Nelson Mandela.
  6. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family – Kofi Annan.
  7. An investment in knowledge pays the best interest - Benjamin Franklin.

Revisiting the Meaning of Quality Education

We must revisit the meaning of “education” and its implications for the African society. Masses have been graduating with advanced degrees, yet they can neither define what education is, nor convincingly communicate the true purpose of education except for frequent mentions of employment. How many graduates can boldly state where and when, if at all, teachers defined for them what “education” is and why it is important – beyond placing emphasis on passing written examinations and getting jobs? The answers point to a weak foundation with missed opportunities for inculcating a culture of lifelong learning and integrity in acquiring and applying sound knowledge, using both formal and informal instructional processes and systems.

In March 2019, the “Transform Kenya” public forum on higher education hosted by the Kenya Television Network (KTN) confirmed a worrying trend in Kenya’s education system, and by extension, other parts of Africa. The roots can be traced to the lost meaning of education, right from the basic level. The clear demonstration was communicated in a Kiswahili pun: “Bora elimu, si elimu bora” (loosely translated “education in any form, not necessarily quality education”). In this scenario, qualifications which appear dignified on paper cannot deliver any quality on the demands of the fast-changing marketplace. The future of work (and workers) increasingly requires skills in emotional intelligence, resilience, curious creativity, systems thinking, and a growing array of non-traditional approaches.

The teacher-learner-society nexus forms a complex adaptive system which cannot yield to linear thinking approaches. Quality education in Africa cannot thrive in linear thinking processes where blame is directed at teachers alone, learners alone, or government alone. Rather, we must engage a systemic approach which empowers and engages all players in a continuous and cyclic evaluation framework, right from the basic level to the highest postgraduate level. Therefore, teaching the philosophy and purpose of education deserves progressive treatment at every stage of learning for all learners regardless of the specialisations they may end up settling for. The following wise sayings challenge the common view people have of education.

  1. The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education - Martin Luther King, Jr.
  2. Education is not just about going to school and getting a degree. It's about widening your knowledge and absorbing the truth about life - Shakuntala Devi (the “human computer”).
  3. The goal of education is not to increase the amount of knowledge but to create the possibilities for a child to invent and discover, to create men who are capable of doing new things - Jean Piaget.
  4. Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learnt in school – Albert Einstein.

Reviewing Mean Trends from Cross-Country Surveys

To qualify how basic education in Africa has been nurturing the innovation capacity of learners, a cross-country survey involving 36 key informants from nine countries was conducted in 2014 and repeated in 2015. Participants at the 12th IREN Africa Resource Bank Forum, held in Nairobi over the period 19 - 22 November 2014 to brainstorm on Africa's productivity in the 21st century, discussed and enriched the results. Much later, the findings were presented to a wider global audience at the FORCE 2017 “Changing the Culture” Conference in Berlin, 25-27 October 2017. The findings revealed that in Africa, the basic education systems are heavy on formal approaches borrowed from the West and give skewed attention to skills development without adequate adaptation to the local settings.

On average, normalised to a percentage scale, the weighted responses showed that basic education has been emphasising literacy (83%) and numeracy (75%), leaving a wide gap and below-average emphasis on the main areas critical to enhancing innovation capacity, namely: systems thinking (14%), talent identification (19%), scientific inquiry (25%), spatial intelligence (31%), creative arts (36%), and communication skills (47%).

Rhythm with Technological Advances

Technological advances should inform the urgency of new paradigms for leading and managing Africa’s education sector. According to the World Economic Forum, technological innovation is the only pillar of global competitiveness at the new frontier which does not run into diminishing returns. Knowledge and investment in Research and Development are essential to innovation capacity. Wealth creation and economic growth arise from increased productivity. As Robert Solow, the 1987 Nobel laureate in Economics observed, knowledge (better education and training) claims a substantial share in enhancing productivity to create wealth and economic growth.

African governments need to support education to be responsive to the realities of technological revolutions, which modify employability skills and the teaching of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). For example, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is likely to outperform human translators by the year 2024 and will eventually perfect the domain of authors by drafting best-selling novels and poems. Automated journalism is picking up, with examples already featuring in the Associated Press and the Washington Post. Some banks are already successful in the pilot stages of producing equity research reports using AI.

Authentic experts, and authentic teachers for that matter, must keep learning with open-minded resilience and a sense of intergenerational responsibility. “Expert” in this revolutionary era is a rapidly fading title which can only be maintained through a cycle of continuous learning, practice and mentoring others by exchanging knowledge and experiences. Lifelong learning is, therefore, the quintessence of rewarding educational experience with unlearning, relearning, reskilling, and upskilling.

Tabichi’s Practical Challenge: Teaching to Transform Society

The well-beaten path to mastering any skill is: learn it, practise it, then teach it as you continue mastering it. Who cares to think this way in a society whose systems and organisational culture have relegated teaching to a career of the desperate and consolation for the not-so-savvy? Education has stood the test of time as the common rite of passage to civilisation on the planet, as echoed in the wise sayings of the philosophers whose thinking and convictions shape our world. “The one exclusive sign of thorough knowledge is the power of teaching,” so goes one saying by Aristotle.

With the ubiquitous abundance of basic problems in Africa, taught concepts should readily find applications in the immediate environment. Teachers are the main agents to facilitate the transfer of these concepts off the pages of books and beyond the walls of the classroom, to the point of real impact on society. Tabichi’s outstanding example in offering practical solutions to society and teaching science in a deprived rural public school confirms that few forces can match the power of passion and sacrifice in the age-old enterprise that is education.

Tabichi’s unspoken but potent message to Africa’s leaders is to give the education sector a fresh look. This must not only be in terms of budget allocations but more so in the sound leadership and enabling environment for homegrown productivity. The Ministry of Education in African governments should, therefore, be a top-rated docket. The Minister in charge of Education should be a cultural icon of dedicated public service with a demonstrated passion for excellence and a proven record of honesty and dignity. The Minister should be able to champion and sustain international networking and partnerships to promote education as the timeless and borderless passport of authentic citizenship in the fast-advancing global knowledge community.

There is broad consensus that the diversity of Africa and her youthful population provide a special comparative advantage. This makes Africa the undisputed home of investment opportunities, a resource bank of diverse potentials just waiting for suitable framework conditions and sustainable partnerships to blossom. Education promises the most impactful and long-term benefits in such aspirational partnerships.

Epilogue: Tribute to Tabichi

Natural laws reward righteous and selfless service to others for the greater common good. These laws kicked in to reward Tabichi beyond what he could ask or imagine. Many may be the afflictions of dedicated teachers, but their sure rewards last a lifetime. Tabichi’s triumph over titanic challenges proves that diligence dampens discrimination. Diligence gives a quantum leap in performance in ways unmatched by nominal qualifications.

By Nashon Adero

The author is a Lecturer at Taita Taveta University (Kenya) and a youth mentor.
Email: [email protected] |LinkedIn

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